(Editor’s note: In our March 2009 issue of Lausanne World Pulse, we discussed Migration, Diaspora, and Displaced People. This is a continuation of what is going in on this field of study.)
Throughout human history people have been on the move, but recent significant increase in scale and scope of global dispersion suggests the Church should take notice. Enoch Wan1 reports that about three percent of the world’s population lives in countries in which they were not born. Seven of the world’s wealthiest countries host about thirty-three percent of the earth’s migrant population. Living in a new culture, the new diaspora are more open to the gospel than at any other time.
Wan reflects theologically on patterns of diaspora throughout the Bible: “There is the fathering of the chosen people in the OT (Exodus 19:4-6, Isaiah 49:5-33) and the scattering of Christians in the NT (Acts 8, 1 Peter 1:1-2).”
Diaspora movement is a global phenomenon; yet, diaspora missiology needs to begin at the local level. With escalating Canadian diversity, the Church comes face-to-face with the challenge of “missions on our doorstep.” The following case study in Canada is a superb example of grassroots diaspora missiology. It illustrates the distinctive challenge of a diaspora missiological approach to outreach, evangelism, and church planting in contrast to traditional missiology.
Canada’s Large New Immigrant Neighbourhoods
Statistics in Canada predict that visible minorities, mainly South Asian and Chinese, will be majority populations in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal by 2017. This is already true in one community2 in a little-known neighbourhood where thirty-five apartment buildings house thirty thousand people—ninety percent of them Asian. A small group of Christians intentionally moved into the neighbourhood in order to share the love of Christ with this strategic diaspora community.
According to the 2006 census, more than half the population settling within these few blocks arrived in Canada in the past five years. Eighty percent are visible minorities, many from countries where it is illegal to convert to another faith. South Asians, many of whom speak Urdu, Dari, Punjabi, and Pashto, make up sixty-six percent of the population. While this high diaspora concentration is impressive, the community is mainly famous for its public school where almost two thousand students (kindergarten to grade five) represent forty-seven countries of origin, and ninety-three percent do not claim English as their first language.
A Church without Walls
The pastor seeking to reach this community says, “We couldn’t believe an area like this exists in Canada. How could a neighbourhood with such a large immigrant population have only one church? Shouldn’t Christians be moving toward these areas, not away from them?”
As Christians become aware of similar communities across Canada, North America, and around the world, we need to “step back and redefine how we think of church,” reflects the pastor, who advocates a relational approach. “If we truly believe the church is the people, then we must learn from Jesus, because he functioned almost completely relationally.” People who join this community of faith live among the people, just as Jesus did. They live in the same high rises, shop in nearby stores, and send their kids to community schools.
Those interested in joining this network are “often the generation of 20- and 30-somethings who are looking for a smaller faith community with evidence of biblical authenticity applied every single day,” says the pastor.
The result is a 24/7 church without walls. This team demonstrates its philosophy of “living incarnationally by bringing together daily life, work, and church all into one cohesive bond.” Rather than inviting neighbours to scheduled church programs, team members “love them as they ride the elevator together, walk down the hall, or shop in the mall.”
Team members also get involved in local schools, the community centre, or wherever they see an opportunity to be “salt and light” through the daily exchange of life. Instead of sponsoring a soccer ministry, they play soccer with kids in the park.
They take their inspiration from gospel accounts of Jesus meeting one person and accessing families and villages. Jesus didn’t invite them to the synagogue; instead, he dropped by their homes, ate with them, and shared stories about the kingdom.
Church historian Wayne Meeks suggests that the first church had a very different view of what it meant to be a disciple of Christ than we do today: “Becoming a Christian meant something like the experience of an immigrant who leaves his or her native land and then assimilates the culture of a new, adopted homeland.”3 In other words, becoming a disciple wasn’t simply a heart change and changing moral behaviour, it involved the transformation of cultural values as well.
What Do the Neighbours Say?
How do these ethnically diverse neighbours perceive this particular community of believers? One neighbour is quick to point out: “They pray for me.” Another says he notices how “they are always helping people.”
Through the Salvation Army, these believers pass out winter jackets. They run summer festivals and teach Canadian traditions while building friendships. Neighbours frequently ask for help with immigration papers, English practice, or homework for their kids. The pastor comments: “Often I say, ‘We don’t do anything—but we do everything.’ We don’t funnel people into programs, but everyone knows we’re available for practical help and prayer.”
A Growing Community of Faith
“Frequently there is a need to de-program church traditions,” says the pastor, “in order to see with new eyes how Christ equipped the disciples to share his message.” In this community, the institutional church is completely foreign. Many ask questions about the Christian tradition and some request a Bible. Small groups are a mix of Christians and the curious.
Leaders call it a “godparent approach,” where neighbours are sponsored into the faith community to a deeper and deeper degree. This team has found a model for its ministry in David Garrison’s ten universal elements of “movemental Christianity,”4 which include extraordinary prayer, abundant seed-sowing, the authoritative word of God, intentional church planting, and more. Garrison would say, “Churches and believers are multiplied as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.”
A Collaborative Partnership
Team members have been moving into this neighbourhood over the past few years, praying and waiting on God. The breakthrough came with a miraculous partnership of four strategic groups. Two groups agreed upon a joint venture to see a local church established. Then, a third group connected with the partnership, along with the Salvation Army. The result: a strategic affiliation, bringing a breadth of gifts and spiritual understanding, which intersects with the lives of a broad spectrum of ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The call to the Church in urban areas is immense; however, creative partnerships like the network formed to reach the diverse diaspora in this neighbourhood may prove to be an inspired answer.
Are There Challenges?
“The challenges of church planting are enormous,” admits the pastor of this little group. But in an area like the one we have just described, it requires a true miracle! In such situations, it is a comfort to remember God’s promise: “Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told” (Habakkuk 1:5).
The task of mission leaders is to realize the scale, frequency, and intensity of people movement both globally and locally, and determine effective mission strategies to bring the love of Christ to the community—right to the doorstep of the diaspora!
(Parts of this article first appeared in Faith Today, Jan/Feb 2009)
1. 2007. “Diaspora Missiology.” Occasional Bulletin of the Evangelical Missiological Society 20(2): 3-7.
2. Name of community withheld for security reasons.
3. 1993. The Origins of Christian Morality. New Haven, Connecticut, USA: Yale University Press.